On Following Jesus

by Jonas Weaver

I’ve taken to saying that I still identify as a Christian. At its most basic this simply means I’m attempting to follow Jesus. But what is “following Jesus”? What does that mean? Sure, the typical answer is doing – or acting – in accordance with the way of Jesus. And that’s not wrong. But I wonder if there’s anything unique about following Jesus, at least in a world of options. I think not. But I still follow Jesus and I still think of Jesus as having some salvific power. But I think I’m beginning to realize that I am incapable of having a personal relationship with Jesus. More: I don’t think it’s possible. It’s definitely not possible in any traditional understanding of a personal relationship. I can’t call Jesus, or text him, or tweet at him, or hug him. I can pray, though the benefits are questionable to me. As a friend once said (paraphrased and worded to the best of my memory), “An immanent god isn’t one too interested in answering prayers, I don’t think.” This has stuck with me. And I’m not sure I could explain how it’s affected me, just that it has. The point is that my belief in an immanent deity instead of a transcendent one makes it unlikely that I can pray with reasonable expectation of my prayers being answered. So, not sure I can have a personal relationship with Jesus.

What then? How do I define my relationship to this man who claimed to be God?

To get at this I need to detour into a discussion of idolatry. I think Marion offers the most helpful clarification regarding idolatry. Marion argues that idolatry finds its problem in its limits. As he states, “Only the genuineness of the idol, as a limited and hence real (real because limited) way of taking the divine into view…” (God Without Being, 28). This makes clear to me why discussions of a personal relationship with a no longer existing person seems odd. I’d actually contend it’s idolatry. Which, finally, takes me back to the ideas of a personal relationship.

Most Christians would, I think, argue that because Jesus exists in a heavenly realm now (he ascended after all) he is still existing and therefore a personal relationship is possible. But that doesn’t seem to make sense without assuming – or doing – the prior work of redefining what “personal relationship” means. Thus, if Jesus is in heaven the way we advance our relationship is to read the bible and pray. Which, also seems odd. Sure, prayer might be just like talking to a friend but Christians can’t even agree on what prayer is really. And reading the bible as a way to form a “personal relationship” seems mildly disturbing. Treating the bible like a diary (which it’s not) of God makes it seem like it’s okay to read the diaries of friends and parents etc. My point is that I don’t think one can have a personal relationship with the God-Man personally on practical grounds. But, more, I think these discussions presume an experience of the divine which verges on idolatrous.

The problem is that folks don’t realize the idolatry of claiming to know a man who died and disappeared. With Jesus we only have a three year snapshot of his life and ministry. Thus, any attempt to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus will be limited by our human capacities. As such, I’m not sure we really will ever know the flesh and blood Jesus. We rely on testimony. We build a construction of Jesus and then associate it somehow with God (insert a protracted discussion of the sensus divinitatis as an example of this). The idolatry comes from a valid experience of the divine but then limiting it to that.

So, what does it mean for me to follow Jesus? It means I follow a construction. I follow an icon of the invisible, questionably existent God. I risk idolatry because I construct an image of what Jesus desires of me. Ergo, I can deconstruct the way of Jesus and try to bette grasp on to this.

 

(Note: writing this I realized I’ve hit the problem of conversion…which will probably lead me to another post. Nor do I think idolatry is inherently a problem.)

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